Harness brothers donate land for conservation to prevent housing development by Neenah

NEENAH – North of Breezewood Lane and west of Neenah’s Memorial Park stands nearly 140 acres of cropland and woodland known as the Harness farm.

For decades, Neenah has desired to annex the property, designating it as most suitable for low-density residential development. The land lies in the town of Neenah, but is on the city’s doorstep and within the city’s defined growth area.

Neenah’s Director of Community Development Chris Haese said the Harness farm could accommodate 250 to 300 single-family homes.

We feel that is the best use for that property and the most efficient way to develop the city,” Haese told The Post-Crescent.

There’s just one problem with the scenario. The owners of the farm, William Harness Jr., 94, and David Harness, 89, recently gifted the entire property to the Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust through a life estate.

The Harness brothers donated the land, the life estate agreement says, “for the purpose of preventing development of the property” and preserving it in its natural state or for continual use in agriculture.

That runs counter to the city’s plan to develop the property for homes.

“There isn’t supposed to be any houses or buildings put onto it,” David Harness told The Post-Crescent.

What does the future hold for the property?

The mission of the Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust is “to preserve lands that protect our waters, landscapes and natural habitats for this and future generations.”

The Post-Crescent contacted Deborah Nett, executive director of the land trust, to learn more about its acquisition of the Harness farm and the language in the life estate agreement that says the Harness homestead, 1605 Breezewood Lane, may be used as a headquarters for the land trust.

Nett said the Harness brothers approached the land trust with their gift. Due to the life estate, she otherwise was reluctant to discuss the potential of the property.

“It’s an exciting thing to think about, but we can’t speculate yet,” Nett said.

The homestead of William Harness Jr. and David Harness could be used as a headquarters by the Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust, according to a life estate agreement.

The homestead of William Harness Jr. and David Harness could be used as a headquarters by the Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust, according to a life estate agreement.

The land trust provided a document titled “Communications – Key Messages” regarding the Harness property. It included the following statements:

  • The life estate enables the owners to continue to live on and use the land.

  • No decision regarding the future use of the land has been made or will be made until the current owners are deceased.

  • Any decision regarding the future use of the land will be made by the land trust staff and board of directors.

  • The range of land-use options include public access space, private use and income generation.

  • The land trust is open to listening to interested parties such as the city of Neenah and town of Neenah as to their plans for the surrounding areas and how the land trust might be able to feed into their plans.

While the land is primarily currently used for farming, we see additional value in the land for protecting water quality, preserving wildlife habitat and providing greenspace for recreation and education,” the document said.

David Harness said he had only one stipulation for the land trust.

“Whatever they want to do with it (is fine) as long as they don’t put houses on it,” he said.

What is the city’s take on the situation?

Neenah has the ability to attach the Harness farm, minus the homestead, upon the expiration of the life estate or 30 days before April 15, 2040, whichever is earlier. The timing is in accordance with a 2022 boundary agreement between the city and town.

Haese said Neenah continues to plan for the development of the land. That includes extending Pendleton Road south of Whippoorwill Circle to Breezewood.

As a planner looking to grow the city in an efficient and orderly manner, Haese said the development of the Harness farmland makes sense. City streets and utilities already abut the property.

Development of the land could help Neenah avoid the development of more environmentally fragile areas, he said.

“Most of the property is agricultural land that’s been disturbed and tilled for many, many decades,” Haese said. “There are other areas that are probably more in need of protection than this particular farmland.”

Haese acknowledged, though, that the decision on future use now rests with the land trust.

Could the Harness property complement Neenah’s Carpenter Preserve?

The west side of the Harness farm contains the woodland and a streambed suitable for protection as an environmentally sensitive area.

If the land trust were to create a nature preserve on the Harness property, for example, it could align with Neenah’s Carpenter Preserve, a 102-acre park that stretches between Breezewood and Winnebago County G. The city acquired the parkland in the late 1990s for passive recreation and educational uses.

“Carpenter Preserve, in some respects, does what the land trust does on a lot of their properties,” Haese said. “It preserves that natural area for the benefit of the community.”

The Harness farm north of Breezewood Lane includes cropland and woodland.

The Harness farm north of Breezewood Lane includes cropland and woodland.

Why didn’t the Harness brothers sell their land for development?

Town of Neenah Administrator Ellen Skerke said real-estate developers have had their eye on the Harness farm for a very long time.

“Not every single day,” Skerke said, “but frequently people come in this office and say, ‘Who can I talk to about the property?'”

David Harness recognized that he and his brother could have sold their acreage to a developer for a lot of money. The potential income wasn’t enough to override their desire to preserve the land, and a little bit of spite might have played a role in their decision.

Harness said that several years ago, he asked the city to unplug a drainageway on its land downstream of their farm. Nothing was done, he said.

Later, when the city put a sanitary sewer line through the farm, he repeated the request, again without result.

“I’m kind of pissed off at the city,” he said.

During a recent gathering at the farm, the Harness brothers received praise for their decision to forgo development. The family has owned the land for more than a century.

“Everybody who was there patted us on the back for doing what we did,” David Harness said.

What other property does the land trust control?

The Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust is a private, nationally accredited nonprofit land conservation organization that was established in 1996. It operates in a 12-county area that encompasses most of the Green Bay watershed.

Green Bay is one of the largest freshwater estuaries in the world, the source of one-third of the surface water flowing into Lake Michigan,” it said in a document titled “Talking About Northeast Wisconsin Land Trust.” “What happens in the watershed impacts the lake’s water quality and the health of all who live, work and play here.

The land trust said it has established 45 conservancies and 13 public preserves, 10 of which are listed on its website. More than 6,200 acres, including 30 miles of shoreline, have been protected.

“We work to leave a legacy of land to future generations,” it said.

Contact Duke Behnke at 920-993-7176 or dbehnke@gannett.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DukeBehnke.


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This article originally appeared on Appleton Post-Crescent: Harness brothers gift land for conservation, foiling Neenah development

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